Conferences Featured

The Next Generation of Natural Historians

The Linnean Society held its second student conference last Friday, Student Spotlights 2020: Discover the next generation of natural historians. I had hoped to go to last year’s event, but that was squashed by a sudden migraine. My visit this year showed that I’d probably missed out on something fascinating.

The description was “In this public-facing conference we will be testing research students’ engagement skills through both oral and poster competitions.” That came out strongly in the talks in that these weren’t just projects I’d be interested to read papers about, they were presented well too.

Chawatat Thanoosing of Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum had the daunting task of going first. His talk was Rainy, Humid, and Muddy: Notes on nests and ecological interactions of bumblebees in Southeast Asia. He talked about his “exploration for bumblebee nests behind the mist of Doi Inthanon Mountain, the highest peak of Thailand, during the rainy season. In short, in Thailand there are bees that live in a mountainous region. In addition to being hard to get to, they’re also difficult to observe once you’re there, as they feed in the tree canopy. So along with your usual montane fieldwork gear, you need to bring a ladder, to see what plants the bees are interacting with.

Thanoosing had the far more sensible idea of searching for nests. If you examine the nest for pollen, and identify the pollen then you get to see what plants the bees were visiting.

One of the interesting elements of the talk for me was how he worked with the local Karen people. For some of the species the local name includes a lot of useful information. For example, the bee ka-duem-sa-kor-ka literally translates as a bee on nightshade flowers

Sabhrina Gita Aninta of Queen Mary, University of London followed with How museum collections can help with saving Wallacea’s large ungulates. As a non-specialist I needed reminding what Wallacea was. It’s a region of mainly Indonesian islands. What marks these islands apart from the rest of Indonesia is that the other islands share a shallow continental shelf with Asia to the west or Australia to the south east. Wallacea is cut off by deep water channels that mean even in the Ice Ages it was not connected to its neighbours by a land bridge. These channels have left it isolated and with some unique flora.

Aninta was looking at anoa (Bubalus spp., dwarf buffaloes) and babirusa (Babyrousa spp., “deer pig”). They’re suffering from deforestation and hunting, to extent that they may soon be extinct. DNA analysis shows they’ve gone through a genetic bottleneck, but when. Aninta is examining museum collections gathered before the recent deforestation to see if the DNA in these items has the same bottleneck signature. Getting a better idea of how deforestation is impacting the genes of the animals could direct conservation efforts for the future.

Meg Cathcart-James of Reading spoke on Life Amongst the Dead: Beetles in UK urban burial grounds. She has identified burial grounds as importance green space in urban areas, and there’s very little work done on their ecology. During her talk she gave a very good-humoured explanation of why. Working in burial grounds meant she was coming into contact with the public when they weren’t in their best mood.

The beetles were a proxy measure for biodiversity. The more diverse the beetle population in a burial ground, the more diverse you could say the ecology of the ground was. It wasn’t strictly a botany talk, but time and again I could see how it was relevant to botanists. I could see this being extremely important work for conservation policy, and I think Cathcart-James will do an excellent job of promoting the importance of these sites.

Maude Grenier of the University of Edinburgh talked about Is Flowering in Greenland advancing? Using historical records to investigate responses to climate change. This is another museum project, working with records from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh and the Museum of Natural History of the University of Copenhagen. Comparing current observations, with the dates of collected plants allowed her to make some conclusions about the effect of warming in the Arctic. And surprisingly, flowering is starting later.

The reason is that the earliest flowering plants are now under snow for longer, because warming is increasing precipitation in the Arctic. The earliest plants cannot get going when they’re still getting covered by fresh snow. The later flowering plants are flowering earlier. So the overall result is that flowering is now compressing into a much narrower window. I’ll need to keep an eye open for these results getting published.

Louisse Paola Mirabueno of the University of Reading & National Institute of Agricultural Botany had the toughest topic: Understanding the Bacterium Xylella fastidiosa. This is an important topic, but also extremely difficult to engage with. Explaining to the public what an ‘effector’ is, is not as simple as saying what ‘a pigeon’ is. Mirabueno is looking at how Xylella can live in some plants without damage and cause chaos in others.

Despite it being a complex project, Mirabueno was able to give an overview of what is going on in plants, and why it matters. She opened and closed with a clear demonstration of the human cost of not controlling Xylella. Her ability to move from discussion of genes and proteins to microscopy images that explained what the effect was inside the plant showed that you really can have a natural history talk on microbiology.

The last three papers also brought natural history into the garden in different ways.

Stephanie Skipp of the University of East London spoke on Saproxylic Stepping Stones: Investigating habitat connectivity for deadwood insects. She started by explaining the key Saproxylic term. If an insect is saproxylic, then it relies on dead or decaying wood for part of its life cycle. In botany there’s a bias towards living plants, and Skipp’s talk highlighted the importance of a plant’s afterlife.

Decaying trees are usually highlighted as problems by municipal authorities and removed. Skipp looked at experiments in how these trees support biodiversity and at attempts to accelerate the decay process, by veteranisation, to create new habitats for saproxylic insects. Another approach was to create ‘beetle boxes’, something akin to bird boxes, providing both food and habitat for invertebrates. Both Skipp and Cathcart-James brought home that I’m not reading enough beetle journals.

Tomos Jones of the University of Reading & Royal Horticultural Society had Ornamental plants: our future invaders? as his topic. Gardens are a source of new exotic plants into a location. As climate changes some plants may have the ability to survive without human help, and some might escape and thrive. Jones wants to predict which non-native garden plants could have a detrimental economic or ecological impact in the future. The way he’s done this is simple and elegant. He’s asked gardeners now what plants they have to put most work in on, to prevent them taking over the garden.

He is keen to point out that ornamental plants are not necessarily bad. It’s a matter of finding the small minority that have the potential to be problems and devising tactics to tackle that in advance. That’s a subtle message that isn’t going to be easy to transmit in the current climate in the UK. But it’s important that it gets out, as the sheer number of keen gardeners can be an extraordinary force for good, if they can be engaged.

Imogen Cavadino of the Royal Horticultural Society & Newcastle University, found this out in her project. “Slugs count”: Understanding slug species in UK gardens.

Slugs are not always bad news. There are over forty species of slug in the UK, and only nine are serious pests. The others work on decayed vegetation recycling nutrients back into the soil. Getting a lot of information on slugs is difficult though. They’re not well studied and fewer than half are native to the UK. When they come from overseas, they’re often not that well studied in that environment either.

Cavadino has been looking at one slug problem in particular. Just as grey squirrels have driven native red squirrels from habitats, so too the Green Cellar Slug might be driving out the Yellow Cellar Slug. Cavadino has been running a project online where you can report sightings of either, and she can try to compare current distributions with historical distributions. She underlines that, with half a million members, the RHS has a lot of eyeballs that could be used for understanding slug ecology.

They were a diverse bunch of talks, but they also had a few things in common. First, not once did I look at the time to see how much longer a talk was. Given there were eight talks, on such a range of topics, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if there had been one dull talk. It would have been awkward, given I was enthusiastic on Twitter at the start, to tweet that one wasn’t my cup of tea. But every single talk was interesting and presented well.

Second, they weren’t just good science, they were presented to engage people. For example, Sabhrina Gita Aninta was talking about investigating animals I hadn’t heard of, in a place I was unfamiliar with, using techniques I didn’t understand. That sounds like a recipe for boredom, but it wasn’t because she took time to explain why I should care. And she used language that conveyed the importance of the collections she was looking at. In her case they were time machines that allowed us to examine the DNA of past populations.

Another fact that sticks in my memory is Meg Cathcart-James travelling over a thousand miles investigating burial sites for her fieldwork. That’s not a comment that I expect will survive to a published article, but it’s a great way of showing how much work there is in visiting these sites. I also liked her continual returning to the human and social element of her work.

Every single one of these projects could be a news story, when they get published (and some already have been). Every single one of the speakers had something extra to offer whoever is handling the press office when their work comes out. And every one of them should be talking to a press office at either their university or a journal when their work is published.

The only downsides of the day for me were that it was in London, and I hate travelling to London, and that while it wasn’t a migraine day, it was a migraine week. To make sure I wasn’t doing too much damage to my head, I left early, Sadly this meant I missed the poster presentation section and the keynote.

From a selfish perspective, I don’t know how the speakers felt about the conference, but as an outsider I found it fun day out, with plenty to chase up for reading.* I hope the conference is back for a third iteration next year.


* Talking of reading, get to an event at Reading has been on my to-do list, somewhere near get more exercise. The three Reading speakers have made it obvious to me that I really need to move that goal up the list.

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